Who Burnt the Koran?

By Daniel Gordon

Who burnt the Koran in Afghanistan?  Was it just the military?  Or was it us, the tolerant members of an academic community? At first, it looks like it’s all about the military. An article published March 3 in the New York Times narrated in appalling detail how military personnel in Afghanistan incinerated copies of the Koran.

When the work detail started to throw the books into the flames, an Afghan laborer offered to help. But when he realized what was happening, he screamed, “The Americans are burning our holy books.”

“The Americans,” he said; not the American soldiers.   Is it possible that we ourselves are implicated.

How well do we Americans – and I mean us, not just the military – understand the concept of a sacred text?  Books appear to be just paper containing symbols. In the United States we have a constitutional right to burn our own flag. Why should we take care not to burn the sacred texts of a religion?

It is important to understand that in some religious traditions, the sacred text is a living thing and not just a material item. In Judaism, one has a special obligation to save a burning bible, or Torah, from a fire ahead of one’s other possessions. The Talmud (a compilation of Jewish laws) goes into great depth to define what makes a Torah a living, sacred Torah.

What if the letters in the text were already worn away before the fire broke out? Do you still save it, or was it already dead? What if the ink in the Torah was of inferior quality? Is it really a sacred Torah that you take special pains to recover from the flames?

Today, we tend to devote a similar degree of concern about the preservation of something only when bodies, not books, are in question. We are Talmudic when it comes to debating. What makes the body alive: respiration, heartbeat, brain activity?  Or when it comes to determining if a person who seems to be in a vegetative state displays any signs of consciousness, is it worth maintain life by machines?

The point is that in some religious cultures, these matters of life and death are attached to texts, not just bodies. It is not easy to understand how books can be so vital, but the role of education is to make other worldviews understandable to us. How well are we doing as educators?

Public secondary schools are often unsure how to include the study of religion and sacred texts in the curriculum. The easiest thing to do is to just skip this stuff. The problem redoubles in higher education. At the University of Massachusetts, among hundreds of humanities and social sciences courses, hardly any in a given year deal with the Jewish Bible, Christian Bible, Koran and other key religious texts.

Our general education program is very good at exposing students to “disciplines” other than their major. But the world has changed since our gen. ed. program was created and since these disciplines hardened into their current form. Notably, a worldwide religious awakening caught most academics off-guard. The diversity requirement in gen. ed. addresses race and ethnicity but not religion. Students too often do not gain an understanding while in college of other people’s concept of the sacred.

As a humanities professor, I am particularly interested in this hole in the disciplines: the study of traditional religious concepts. Many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences now approach religious books as outdated. This is not an issue limited to UMass but is characteristic of higher education in general. The disciplines treat religious texts, if at all, as fuel for the blazing of new literary, linguistic, historical and sociological paradigms.

The emphasis is on forging new academic conceptions, not on making old religious ones understandable. The humanities aspire to be like the natural sciences: bodies of knowledge moving forward all the time. But this emphasis on new academic knowledge makes it irrelevant for us to grasp the classic significance of sacred texts for religious believers.

There are exceptions to what I am saying. I encourage students to look at the certificate program in religious studies. It has a list of courses on religion that are available at UMass and the other four colleges. However, it looks like there is no course on the Koran at UMass, and very few that are mainly about other sacred texts.

It is possible that the ignorance of military officers, their burning of Korans, is linked to a general lack of knowledge in our educated population about the very concept of a sacred text. Is there a presumed sense of superiority toward the Koran – and toward the idea of the sacred in general – that university professors and military officers hold in common? The divide between the military and our academic community may not be as large as we think.

Daniel Gordon is a professor of history at UMass Amherst. He can be reached at [email protected]